• FEATURES \ Jan 04, 2005
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    Season of good cheer in a minority within a minority
Season of good cheer in a minority within a minority As he pulls the sparkling green-and-gold garment over his customary black frock in preparation for the Christmas Mass, Abunah (Father) Emile Ruhana laughs broadly when told that his parishioners like to refer to him fondly as their "Sakhkan recesh" (outside contract player).

"Absolutely true," agrees the jovial 40-plus priest, who doubles congregational responsibilities here at the Greek Catholic community and in his native village of Usfiyah on Mount Carmel.

"But," he insists on adding, "I'm already a veteran in Sakhnin. I've been here for several years." And, he's delighted, he says, to be linked to the phenomenon that continues to sweep Sakhnin - the town's new found identity built around the success of their soccer team, Bnei Sakhnin. With soccer bordering on a new religion, Father Emile concedes that the faithful now play on two fields, but he doesn't worry that it'll challenge his congregation's commitment.

"Soccer is now the heart and soul of the town. Since," he says - showing remarkable knowledge about the intricate workings of the local game - "they went up to third division, to the second, to the Premier top league, won the Cup, played in Europe, the people are united not only both Muslims and Christians, but everywhere that Arabs live in this country, they're all behind Sakhnin and its soccer team."

But as they marked the Christmas holiday in this Greek Catholic church last week according to the Gregorian Calendar, and as the neighboring Greek Orthodox Church prepares to celebrate its Christmas next week, division rather than unity is an element that highlights the small Christian community here. The other is suggested by the Nazareth writer Atallah Mansour, who in his recently published book "Narrow Gate Churches: The Christian Presence in the Holy Land under Muslim and Jewish rule," says pointedly: `"Historic narrative is not what unites native Arab Christians. Their story is not that of a closed, tightly knit or well-identified community; it is their future prospects and fears that bring them together as one tribe."

Proudly "Holy Land" Christians project themselves as the "original Christians." Here, at the top of "Martyrs 2000 Street", virtually the entire community of 600 souls - men, women, children and many, many babes in arms - have crowded into their new church, which has been built with donations arranged by Father Emile from well-wishers in Germany. Signs of that "nativeness" are plentiful.

The Mass is conducted according to the rites of Rome, but it's all in Arabic. In contrast to Western churches many men have their heads covered (with kaffiyot, the traditional Arab headdress), and they cross themselves from right to left, and while in prayer, hands are not held together and pointed vertically upward, but palms are held upward, fingers curved into a bowl, similar to the way hands are held in prayer within a mosque.

Dress, however, is as modern Western as it comes, especially the teenagers and young women who sport every kind of risque fashion and colorfully splattered hairstyles, which stand out against the more demure dress of their mothers and the traditional Middle East fashion of their grandmothers.

Here, they favor "uniting our holiday timetables," as has been done in some Israeli Christian towns and villages in which Christmas celebrated in all communities according to the Latin church and Easter on the Orthodox date.

It's the Orthodox who balk. True enough, says Salah Khoury after the regular Sunday morning Mass in his church around the corner. Bluntly, he notes, "the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem does not want us to unite the dates, but to preserve our calendar."

Khoury's 80-year-old father Abunah Yusef is the fourth consecutive member of his family to serve as town priest. Not for them the local challenge for more indigenous power being mounted gingerly by some from within Orthodox congregations around the country who resent the domination of Athens and their dispatched priests to Jerusalem.

Fraternal religions

"To promote local Christian unity would be wonderful - after all Jesus wasn't born on two different days - but there's another good reason for each church to remain true to its traditions. It sustains our specific identity. And that is very important to us."

Issues of identity are never far from the church door. Nor indeed from any door in this town, which parades with pride its mixed football team of Arabs - Muslims, Christians, Druze - and Jews, a town that seems in constant search for its proper place within Israeli society, a search which folds into persistent preoccupation with the majority-minority relationship in its different guises.

Mustafa Abu Raya served two stints as Sakhnin's mayor. "As a student I worked as a waiter in a wedding hall," he recalls. "There I noticed how Moroccan Jewish families would include in their blessings a message for the (late) King (Hassan II). I remonstrated - why do so when he was such a tyrant? They explained that the king had always taken such good care of the Jewish community. I was impressed. Later, when I became mayor I made a point of always going to the Christian community to extend good wishes on their holidays. They needed this support from the Muslim majority."

Today Mayor Mohammed Bashir keeps up the inter-communal tradition of honoring the minority community. Mid-way through the Mass, the mayor and a group of "dignitaries" troop in to a front pew. Father Emile welcomes them warmly. Later, in a festive reception in the church basement everyone talks of positive interaction between "our fraternal religions."

Another honored guest in the delegation is the recently installed new police chief of the Misgav region, Superintendent Ilan Harush. His message is equally pacific. "We are here to serve you. My door is always open. I regard Sakhnin as the most important place in our district. It is, after all, our big town." Gone is the hostility, the antagonism that led up to the bloody events of October 2000 when Guy Reif was the commander here.

It's not just the Christmas spirit, one senses. This is not Nazareth with Muslim-Christian tensions constantly in evidence. "Tolerant but conservative" is how Sakhnin people like to project themselves, revolutionary concepts shunned.

The concept of the "secular Jew" is one way in which Israel has added to the gamut of Jewish experience. Most Muslims insist that there is no such thing as a "secular Muslim" though Sarur Shawani begs to differ. "People should be judged," he asserts "by who they are, not by their religious or national affiliation."

His boss is city Treasurer Michel Ghantous, a leading member of the Greek Orthodox community. While paying due reverence to the tolerance and to the absence of conflict between the communities, he surprisingly volunteers this: "Sakhnin will never have a Christian mayor." It's the rider that he adds to that proclamation that is the really unexpected thought. "We don't deserve it," he says emphatically.

If there is truly no discrimination, no prejudice, why on earth not?

"Simple - we don't have the numbers." The Christians, constantly no more than 5 percent to 7 percent of the town's population over the past two centuries and now too with 1,200 of 25,000, are not regarded as any kind of challenge or threat to Muslim hegemony. Both sides regard the unofficial constriction as perfectly acceptable.

"It's the same thing with respect to the possibility of a woman becoming mayor," says Michel Ghantous. "We have never even had a woman on the town council."

A food-for-thought forecast through the mesmerizing rising and falling chants of the Greek Orthodox litany that are recited against the backdrop of several icons of the Virgin Mary in the little church that is home to the town's second Christian congregation.

It was back in 1715 that the "Holy Land" Greek Catholics broke away from the Greek Orthodox though they were forced to wait a century until getting official recognition for their church from the temporal authorities of the Ottoman Empire.

In Sakhnin the two small communities are level pegging, content with their 600-600 parity. It always meant, however, Michel Ghantous confesses with a smile the need to rush home from holiday celebrations in east Jerusalem (his wife's hometown) to allow the children to make sure that they were not "outgunned" by the Greek Catholic kids in the fire-cracker celebrations in Sakhnin's streets (the equivalent of the old plastic hammer street bashes that used to be marked elsewhere in Israel on Independence Day).

Since their ways split in this land, Jews and Christians have accumulated mounds of baggage during centuries in Europe and beyond that's a major part of their ongoing relationship. Such inter-religious baggage is absent from the Jewish-Christian encounter here; the only baggage is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Everyone's conclusion is that peace would solve all problems. And beyond the conventional wisdom that Israel's Arab citizens stand to gain most by resolution of the conflict, there's a distinct feeling that Christian Arabs stand to gain most of all.

Even without resolution of the conflict, the fences that Israel maintains between different groups, the rigorous defining of people by their identity, and the difficulties that confront anyone who seeks to cross religious lines, very much suits this Christian minority within a minority. Talk of "mixed marriages" means only between churches. Inter-marriage across religious lines is almost unheard of, and the commonly held view in the town is that when rarely it's tried, it doesn't work.

"Not good - very good," responds Father Emile to a query whether philosophically it's "good" for the Holy Land's Christians to be living in a "Jewish state." There is, however, one limit on his unreserved satisfaction: the authorities do not clamp down on proselytizing Protestants among local Christians with us as they do in outlawing attempts to convert Jews. "They turn a blind eye, probably because those are trying to make inroads into our communities are Evangelicals, part of the Bush lobby."

Sakhnin again is an exception. "They've certainly tried, several times, but we've always managed to show them the way out," says Salah Khoury with a chuckle. The proselytizing failure is evidently so stark that everyone remarks on one local Greek Catholic who moved to Jerusalem to join a Protestant community.

Pluralism, tolerance, status quo - in a battle for primacy on a very, very conservative pitch.